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The timing of our advice when understanding our client's needs
Issues - Autumn Edition 2023
The timing of our advice when understanding our clients
The timing of our advice when understanding our clients is critical when providing guidance and support to separating parties.
Clients often seek legal guidance from lawyers at an early stage to help them plan their next steps, anticipate potential risks, and understand their legal rights and entitlements. They might have an expectation, that as their lawyer, we will strip the unknown of any surprises, so they can feel in control and know that their future is going to be OK.
And when we work with people who are anxious or in distress, it is a natural human tendency to try and alleviate that distress.
Often, when we first meet with clients, we may only hear their perspective, or “side of the story”, however, we may still provide general advice as to potential outcomes and entitlements. We may say things like “…A Court may consider it to be in your children’s best interests to live primarily with you” or “you should receive a greater share of the assets due to your contributions”. We may even provide a favourable percentage split, as it may fall within a “range”.
While we say these things because based on our client’s side of the story, they may be likely outcomes, we also say these things because it may bring our clients initial relief and comfort.
The timing of our advice is critical.
If a client is vulnerable, the early provision of advice can be important. They may be disempowered because of a controlling and dominating ex-partner, and there may be safety factors to consider, like family violence or coercive control. In these instances, early legal advice may serve to clarify, motivate, empower and even protect.
However, when these factors are not present, providing advice before all the information is available and both sides are heard, can set parties up for a more difficult separation. They may grasp on to the more favourable advice received early on. They may become fixated on an outcome that is in line with the favourable percentage split that was described to them at the very beginning, even if they were warned that the further advice could be different, once more information comes to hand. They may feel let down, as their initial expectations, will not be met.
Now some lawyers have said to me, well, if you don’t give all your clients advice at the beginning, what do you give them?
Our first interactions with our clients are so important. We have an opportunity to undertake very important foundational work, priming them for a better and more civil separation.
Ideally, clients will be open to understanding the perspective of the other party. If they can, they are more likely to resolve their problems and feel the lasting effects of an amicable separation.
But let’s be realistic. When emotions are raw and life is turned upside down, many separating parties are not open or ready for this. We must be mindful that we do not place too much emphasis on trying to get separating couples to understand each other. If we do, we risk letting an inability or readiness to understand each other, create a barrier to a peaceful separation.
There is a precursor to understanding: in order to understand another’s views, goals and feelings (and for them to understand yours) we first need to acknowledge what is ours and what is theirs. We have our own needs, values and beliefs and so do they. We have goals and wishes – and so do they. We may not agree with them or completely understand why they feel the way they do, but that’s ok. We accept it’s their belief to have.
This helps clients to accept what they can control. It can reframe uncertainty as clarity, and disharmony as compromise.
Clients may be more willing to take responsibility and own their part, setting them up to have more purposeful conversations, articulating their needs or concerns, without too much (if any!) intervention from lawyers.
It also sets them up to better understand and reflect on the legal advice we provide to them, when the time is right: once all the information is available and we can advise on the “full picture”, even if this advice does not necessarily support their position. After all, it is not just about applying the law to the facts; it is also about understanding our clients’ needs and goals and providing them with the guidance and support they need to achieve them.